In 2014, the Arizona softball team, led by Mike Candrea in his 29th year as head coach, will look to its depth and experience to get it back to Oklahoma City and the Women’s College World Series, a destination it has not been since 2010.
The Wildcats bring back seven offensive starters and all three pitchers from a season ago, while welcoming a myriad of new talent. Two key players – pitcher Kenzie Fowler and shortstop Kellie Fox – were forced to redshirt in 2013 and appear poised to make a tremendous impact to the squad in 2014.
“I like this team,” said Candrea. “We’ve really helped ourselves by bringing in a little more talent. The thing I like is our depth and our ability to have a lot of different options out there.”
Arizona’s versatility should play a great factor, with many players being able to play multiple positions.
“When we move those options I don’t think we lose a lot,” said Candrea. “There’s a lot of different things that we can do this year to try and find out what that magical number is going to be.”
In 2013, Arizona failed to earn a regional title for just the second time in the last 27 seasons, leaving the players motivated to return the program to its standard.
“I think the big thing about this team is that they’re hungry,” said Candrea. “They’re out to prove a point that they want to leave their legacy at Arizona. It’s time for us right now to start playing the game and executing the game. I think we had a good fall (season). The pieces are there, now it’s just a matter of going out and executing.”
UA will be led by five seniors and five juniors, all of whom have taken the new talent under their wings and helped bring them up to speed on collegiate and Arizona softball. The Wildcats welcome nine newcomers to the squad this season – four freshmen and five transfers.
With nine outfielders, the team has plenty of options to fill the three spots. The Cats can put its best offensive lineup out there, or can play for defense depending on the situation. But one thing is for sure – senior Alex Lavine will man centerfield and give Arizona one of the best of the best defensive centerfielders in the game.
Combining her range, arm strength and assertiveness, Lavine will be a force anchoring Arizona’s outfield.
“Lavine is an absolute bulldog,” said Candrea. “She’s a kid that came here and walked on and has earned everything that she has and has become a really good player. She takes control of the outfield. She has tremendous pride. She puts on that uniform and she plays that game one way – hard.”
Redshirt junior Chelsea Suitos, who played shortstop in high school and bounced around defensively her first two seasons at Arizona, will play left field. Suitos, a career .311 hitter and 26-of-27 in career stolen bases, is a skilled slapper whose offensive assets are too valuable to keep out of the lineup. Her plus speed and developing arm strength could lead to a solid defensive year as well.
“Suitos is solid,” said Candrea. “She’s a kid that understands the game. I think her arm strength has gotten better. She’s a kid that you have to have in the lineup because she makes things happen.”
Right field could be a revolving door with plenty of impressive options. Should Candrea choose to go with his best offensive lineup, it will be freshman slugger Katiyana Mauga, an infielder who has been a pleasant surprise in the outfield. Sophomore Courtney Rodriguez, who Candrea calls the team’s most improved player, has made strides since hitting just .127 in 36 starts last season; Rodriguez led the team with a .727 average during the fall.
Newcomers Payton Kornfeind, Cynthia Pelayo, Siera Phillips, Erika Tapia and Eva Watson will provide depth in the outfield and will likely see time as defensive replacements as well as pinch runners.
Four-time All-American Caitlin Lowe, who served as the team’s director of operations in 2013, assumes a new role in 2014 – the team’s volunteer assistant coach. Lowe will coach the outfielders. The two-time national champion brings her expertise on defense, base running and slapping and should have a tremendous impact on Arizona’s success.
“Caitlin has done a nice job working with our outfielders and giving them a lot of knowledge,” said Candrea. “They work very hard and I think they’re going to be a very stable group. I don’t have any doubts that they will be able to do everything we need them to do to be successful.”
The supreme athleticism at every position appears to be a recipe for a special season for the infielders.
“Our infield is very talented,” said Candrea. “I can’t remember the last time I could look around the infield and have talent at every position. You have experience and great softball instincts in the field. We have kids who understand what it takes to play this game at a high level for a change. They’re very capable of physically doing it. I feel it’s going to be a strength for us.”
UA will have a new double-play combination, but a very talented one at that. Transfer Kellie Fox and freshman Mo Mercado give Arizona two very talented defenders up the middle.
“I think we have a chance to have one of the very best combinations up the middle that I’ve had here,” said Candrea.
Their offense should be equally as impressive, as both are solid hitters who possess power to all fields. Fox hit .295 in two seasons at UCLA with 15 home runs and 67 RBI; Mercado hit .583 during eight fall contests with three doubles and two home runs.
At the corner spots, the Wildcats will be equally impressive, with Hallie Wilson and Lauren Young manning first and third, respectively. Both aggressive, solid defenders, they should be a lethal combination in thwarting opposing teams’ short games.
Wilson, a preseason USA Softball Player of the Year Watch List member and first-team all-Pac-12 performer, has led Arizona in batting average each of her first two seasons at Arizona and possesses a career .359 average. The on-base specialist has developing power, making her perhaps Arizona’s biggest offensive threat.
“Athletically, Hallie is our most gifted player,” said Candrea. “This year she’s come back in great shape and is probably a step quicker. She’s worked really ,really hard and brings great leadership and great skills. She’s one of the best in the country.”
Young, a Pac-12 all-freshman performer in 2013, looks to improve on a season in which she hit 12 home runs and drove in 36 runs. She will continue to be a force in the middle of Arizona’s lineup.
“Lauren is gifted,” said Candrea. “She’s proven that she’s as good as anyone at third.”
The pitching staff is a microcosm of the entire team, boasting immense depth and veteran leadership. The staff is made up of five pitchers, including three seniors. The five pitchers are the most Candrea has ever had.
“They’ve worked hard and improved,” said Candrea. “We have a lot of different options and I think that will be a part of the game, as always, that develops as the season goes on.”
The Cats welcome back All-American Kenzie Fowler, who redshirted last season due to offseason back surgery. Fowler led Arizona to the 2010 WCWS title game and was one of 10 finalists for the USA Softball Player of the Year. The fifth-year senior has a career 1.95 ERA and is already in the Arizona career top 10 in victories (8th – 79) and strikeouts (6th – 794).
“Kenzie is in a good place right now,” said Candrea. “Overall, I’m very excited for what she brings to the table and I still believe that she can be one of the best in the country.”
Fellow senior Shelby Babcock has logged 539 career innings, 10th most in school history. The hard-throwing righty has fine-tuned some of her mechanics and is ready to make her senior season her best in an Arizona uniform.
“I think the big thing with her is consistency,” said Candrea. “She has worked hard and she deserves to have a good year. It’s her senior year so it’s time to shine.”
Estela Piñon, a junior-college transfer prior to 2013, did an excellent job in the circle for Arizona last season and will look to improve upon her performance with a year of Division I softball under her belt. She will look to pick up where she left off in 2013, when she led the team with a 3.53 ERA. More impressively, in her final 22.1 innings of the season, spanning 11 relief appearances, she allowed only two earned runs (0.63 ERA), both of which came in Arizona’s final game of the season against Baylor.
“I thought Stela had a great year last year,” said Candrea. “I think she came in and threw some great games. I think she continues to get better and she’s a kid we are definitely going to rely on to give us some great innings.”
The three seniors have helped greatly with Arizona’s two talented underclassmen – sophomore Nancy Bowling and freshman Michelle Floyd. Both are hard throwers with excellent stuff still learning to pitch at this level.
“I think Nancy can be a dominant force and I’m waiting for that moment for her to break open,” said Candrea. “And I think Michelle’s going to be able to give us some quality innings. She has a very stable mindset as a pitcher. She understands what we are trying to do.”
Making things a little easier is the fact that the defense behind the pitchers should be stellar.
“Our goal is to get ground balls,” said Candrea.
Additionally, it is hard to find a better instructor than three-time All-American Alicia Hollowell, who enters her second year as the Wildcats’ pitching coach.
Behind the plate, Arizona boasts two of its most productive members of its lineup, who will split time between catching and the designated player. Chelsea Goodacre and Kelsey Rodriguez are two middle-of-the-order type hitters, but Candrea is more concerned with their ability to play defense.
“We’re solid behind the plate,” said Candrea. “They definitely understand that one of their key roles is to be able to be a field general. I think they’re much more vocal. They’re making it a point to understand each pitcher and what each pitcher needs from them.”
Offensively, the two will look to continue to be two of the best hitters in the Wildcats’ lineup.
In 2013, Goodacre hit 17 homers and drove in 58 runs, best on the team and fifth in the conference in both categories. In the fall, she showed no signs of letting up with a .708 batting average with nine home runs in 24 at-bats. The junior should remain Arizona’s prime source of power.
“I think Goody is someone who is talented and is finally starting to put all the pieces together,” said Candrea. “I think she has matured a lot. I think she is understanding the role of a catcher. I think she has a great IQ for calling pitches, both her and Kelsey have that. I think she is going to be a force at the plate.”
In 2013, Rodriguez, in her first season after transferring from Pacific, hit .317 with 28 RBI. Rodriguez does not possess elite power, but does many little things to make her a very effective offensive threat.
“Kelsey is one of a kind,” said Candrea. “She is smart, intelligent and a hard worker. She is a relentless worker. I think she is a very good hitter and she will be in the lineup somewhere. I think she is a kid that can hit .350 and drive in some runs for us.”
Though the offense will be important from the backstop tandem, the way the two can manage a pitching staff and command the defense will be instrumental to Arizona’s success.